Catholic Lawyers and Brandeis Society discuss their faith and wrongful convictions
The Catholic Lawyers of Kings County and the newly formed Brooklyn Brandeis Society came together for a town hall meeting covering Faith in the Law at the Brooklyn Bar Association on Tuesday night.
“We are thrilled to be co-sponsoring for the first time, presenting together with the Catholic Lawyers Guild and the Oratory Church of Saint Boniface,” said Hon. Miriam Cyrulnik, president of the Brandeis Society. “This is an interesting, timely and informative program that is part of our Faith in the Law series — an Analysis of Wrongful Convictions. We look forward to co-sponsoring many more events going forward.”
The discussion was led by Judge John M. Leventhal, who acted as moderator during the event. Panelists included Administrative Judge of the Brooklyn Supreme Court, Criminal Term, Matthew J. D’Emic, Mark Hale from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, and Dana M. Delger, a staff attorney of the Strategic Litigation Unit for the Innocence Project.
“Should a defendant convicted of a capital offense and sentenced to death, who is not deprived of any constitutional right at trial, be executed when the defendant was actually innocent?” Judge Leventhal asked to open the event. “Should any defendant who suffered no other violation of a constitutional right, who received a fair trial remain incarcerated when the defendant is actually innocent?
“Morally, ethically and religiously we would all answer these questions in the negative, but in the legal realm this answer is not clear.”
Each of the three panelists described their role in helping to free the wrongfully convicted and each of them talked at length about how they feel their faith and morals have often played a role in cases where the law is ambiguous.
“We’re not just asking prosecutors to look at a particular case where one person is innocent, we free them and move on,” Delger said. “The moral imperative in these cases is not just to correct that particular case, but to ask what we have learned and figure out how to change it going forward. We have to look at what we do in new cases.”
“The job of a prosecutor is different because it’s not just about winning and losing, it’s about doing justice,” said Hale, who explained that the DA’s Office has exonerated 14 people wrongfully convicted since Kenneth Thompson took office nearly two years ago. “We need to do the right thing, but what we’ve learned is that sometimes people who think they’re doing the right thing can sometimes be mistaken.”
Judge D’Emic explained that even though the two groups, the Catholic Lawyer’s Guild and the Brandeis Society, are based on different faiths, everyone’s moral duty is similar. He compared the Jewish idea of tzedakah, or charity, with the teachings of Pope Leo XIII in 1891.
“I think what we’re talking about here are concepts of truth and justice,” D’Emic said. “Now, we talk about truth and justice as ideals, and while they are ideals, they’re also enormous realities that must be nurtured by us as lawyers and judges.”
Just before the event concluded, Justice Robert J. Miller spoke about how his faith routinely comes into play as a judge, especially when trying to ensure that justice is carried out properly.
“Every time I read one of these wrongful conviction cases and read that it’s been confirmed by the Appellate Division and confirmed by the court of appeals, it causes me, and probably most of the people on the panel, to ask, ‘Did we get this wrong?’” Miller said. “I hope and pray that we are handling this in the right way. It is something that weighs on everybody if we’re doing our job.”
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